It Matters

These days racism seems to have emerged more overtly  in the public consciousness both in the instance and in the outrage. It is heartbreaking but complicated.

Racism never left us in this country, it just was disguised in the name of correctness for a time. Not that that is necessarily a bad thing. But in a peculiar and sad way the return of overt racism and it’s concomitant behaviors is a good thing. This comes under the category of the devil you know is easier to fight than the devil you don’t. Not that racist behavior is ever a good thing.

And while outrage is good and appropriate, social media outrage unaccompanied by action, doesn’t do anyone much good other than to shine a light. For some of us knowing what to do other than sympathize and voice our outrage is perplexing and difficult.

I just finished reading the autobiography of Albert Woodfox, a story of one of the most egregious miscarriages of our “justice” system that I know of; and I was a public defender for a good long time. Albert Woodfox was wrongly and improperly convicted, slandered and tortured and was kept in solitary confinement conditions for forty years. His memoir is full of the injustices done to him and many others, but it is also filled with grace and courage and compassion for others. Albert Woodfox is one of my personal heroes and this book should be required reading for everyone. Louisana, it’s congress people, judges, attorneys and most especially the former governor, Bobby Jindal, should forever hang their heads in shame.

Woodfox talks not only about the system and the injustices it did him,  but he talks about racism in rational and meaningful terms. He talks about the vilification of the Black Panther Party that was founded to do good, not violence. Woodfox preached constant non-violence to all those he was incarcerated with. His strong compassionate voice serves to set right many of the notions that were born in the sixties when striking workers held up signs that said “I am a Man” and continue today when movements like Black Lives Matter are vilified as themselves racist. One might ask why anyone in this country and this age should have to identify that they are human and worthy.

And if you think that inequities of race don’t continue to exist in our criminal justice system, look at the demographic statistics. Even more, read this book and see what the state invested in continuing to incarcerate an elderly innocent black man. And understand that it was not until 2016 after eighteen years of court dates, disappointments and many lawyers and supporters efforts, that he walked out of prison. And he did not walk out acknowledged as an innocent man. He pled nolo contendre prior to a third trial that would clearly again be unfair. And even as he chose freedom, he agonized that he had sacrificed his integrity by doing so.

Albert Woodfox is a man of unparalleled ntegrity, courage and grace. I wish to live with a fraction of that. And so, when you don’t know what to do when faced with racism, speak up even if it seems dangerous; take out your phone and record it; be counted; take action.

You have a voice, use it.

Peace and Justice

National Memorial for Peace and Justice

We packed a lunch, and snacks, and set off for Alabama. Why? Glad you asked. The Peace and Justice Memorial Center and Memorial in Montgomery, Alabama had been calling my name for quite some time.

From the New York Times, April 25, 2018:

“In a plain brown building sits an office run by the Alabama Board of Pardons and Paroles, a place for people who have been held accountable for their crimes and duly expressed remorse. Just a few yards up the street lies a different kind of rehabilitation center, for a country that has not been held to nearly the same standard.”

The Center, which opened in April of 2018, is a small building in the city that was the center of the slave trade in the United States and was itself a slave warehouse for those brought by river and train.

The old brick wall at the entry to the warehouse building reverberates with the chains of the imported, calling out for justice. The center is a museum that is overwhelming with the physical evidence of the cruelty and evil that is part of the American heritage. Glass jars filled with sand from the known sites of lynchings, some with names, some unknown. And so much more.

The signs collected from everywhere segregation and hatred were overt were startling but not unexpected in retrospect. One sign in particular I will never forget:

“No Niggers, No Jews, No Dogs”

You will forgive the word, but it is what the sign said and it would be cowardly to edit it. As a Jew, this resonated in a more personal way. My thought was this – of the three, the dogs had experienced the least oppression.

The Memorial itself is both beautiful and grim, a field of 800 hanging metal coffin shaped boxes in a roofed area that includes fountains and quotes. The metal coffins hang at varying heights, at first at eye level, like a grave monument and finally above, as the lynched would be hanging. Each is inscribed with a county, and the names of those lynched in that place, some simply marked as unknown, most not. It is stunning and horrifying and important.

The Memorial stands in a rolling green field, quite beautiful in stark contrast. Just as the lynched might have, and did, hang from a beautiful tree in bloom in a green field. You cannot help but cry, and feel shame at what this represents, and pride that it is memorialized now in a way that cannot be ignored.

Bryan Stevenson said:

“The opposite of poverty is not wealth. The opposite of poverty is Justice.”

In that field, aside from the structure of the Memorial, are enormous “tables”. These are raised areas that hold duplicate metal bars, exactly like those that hang. They are not affixed, they are just lain in these beds. The point is that each and every county has been invited to take the one marked with their name and erect it as a memorial in that county.

My hope is that I will visit there again someday, and all the bars in that beautiful green field will be gone, raised against racism, bigotry and intolerance.

Devarim – Last Week and the beginning of the end

Devarim is the beginning of Deuteronomy, the last of the five books of Moses, the Torah, and the beginning of the end of the cycle, bringing us again to the High Holy days and the joy of Simchas Torah and beginning all over again.

I am not sure being a Temple President is doing G-d’s work, but I like to think it is as it keeps me from doing this.

Most people who think of it at all, think of Deuteronomy as the lawyer’s book, the book of laws – all those gift prints for lawyers offices – “Justice, justice shalt thou pursue” and so on. Being a word geek I was happy to learn that the root words are deuteros for second and nomos for law (yes, Greek). So Dueteronomy is the book of “second” laws. It is the book in which Moses re-iterates and review the laws of the Torah as he rebukes the people for their failing during their 40 years in the desert.

What spoke to me this time around was that this parsha is about wars. And there is lots of commentary, oddly, about “good wars and “bad wars” and the price of war generally. Obviously this resonates presently. It is in this parsha that Moses tells his successor, who will lead the people into Israel and into battle “Fear them not, for the Lord your G-d, He shall fight for you.” As I understand it, more than 7,000 rockets have fallen on Israel and the physical destruction of so many places, In Israel and in Gaza is horrifying. For the frightened children on either side, there is no “good war” no “bad war”, just fear and destruction. So save a place in your prayers for all the innocents. But I digress.

Although this is the week of Devarim, it was also Tisha B’av, about which I am sad to say, I knew nothing. It is characterized as the “saddest day in the Jewish calendar”. The 9th of Av is the day on which the first Temple in Jerusalem was destroyed approximately 2000 years ago. In looing further, I found that our “mythology”, or “history” goes that many things have happened on this fateful day:
1. The spies slandered the land and decree to wander the desert for 40 years resulted;
2. The destruction of the First Temple by King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon in 423 BCE;
3. The destruction of the Second Temple by the Romans in 70 CE;
4. The fall of Betar and the end of the Bar Kochba revolt against the Romans 65 years later in 135 CE (look it up!);
5. Pope Urban II declares the First Crusade; tens of thousand of Jews are killed and communities obliterated;
6. the Jews of England are expelled in 1290;
7. The Jews of Spain are expelled in 1492;
8. World War 1 breaks out in 1914 when Russia declares war on Germany; the German resentment of the Treaty of Versailles set the stage for WWII and the holocaust;
9. On Tisha B’Av, the deportation of Jews from the Warsaw Ghetto begins.

So, indeed, the saddest day of the year – the 9th of Av has much to answer for. For the orthodox it is a three week period of mourning and a fast of one day. It is a day of spiritual reflection and accounting, foreshadowing the coming of Yom Kippur.

The Temple in Jerusalem was the center of Jewish life and identity, much as Israel is the center of identity for us today and why it’s perilous position feels so real and emotional to us. In this country we are in a war of words. We are a people of words, people of the book and we know the destructive power of words; politically socially and emotionally. This of “juden” printed on a yellow star to be worn on the chest. Think of “never again” and Am Israel Chai. it is why the words of the press, accounting war in bodies and not peril or fear are so hurtful.

In this parsha, Moses reminds the people that the ways of the book are everything, they are the laws by which we strive to live. And, really, he is reminding us to learn from our mistakes. As Deuteronomy urges us to pursue justice, so to the Qu’ran, verse 5:8 “O Believers, be steadfast for God with justice. Do not let hatred of the people make you act unjustly. Be just for justice is next to piety. AS we pray for peace and justice, take your Shabbat with you out into the world and carry shalom with you everywhere you go.